Supreme Court to hear big gun rights case


The Supreme Court is about to hear its biggest gun rights case in years, arguments that come as gun violence has surged.

The case the justices will hear Wednesday could dramatically increase the number of people eligible to carry a gun as they go about their daily lives.

It could also make it harder for cities from New York City to Los Angeles to limit gun permits and call into question restrictions on carrying guns in places where people gather including subways, airports, bars, churches and schools.

The court last issued major gun rights decisions in 2008 and 2010. Those decisions established a nationwide right to keep a gun at home for self-defense. The question for the court now is whether there’s a similar Second Amendment right to carry a firearm in public.

The question isn’t an issue in most of the country, where gun owners have little difficulty legally carrying their weapons when they go out. But about half a dozen states, including populous California and several Eastern states, restrict the carrying of guns to those who can demonstrate a particular need for doing so. The justices could decide whether those laws, often called “may issue” laws, can stand.

The fact that the high court is hearing a gun rights case at all is a change after years in which it routinely turned them away. One case the justices did agree to hear that could have expanded gun rights ended anticlimactically in 2020 when the justices threw out the case, saying a change in the law at issue left the court with nothing to decide.

But following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year and her replacement by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the court agreed to wade into the gun debate again.

The case before the justices involves New York law, which since 1913 has said that to carry a concealed handgun in public for self-defense a person applying for a license has to demonstrate “proper cause,” an actual need to carry the weapon. When local officials issue a gun license it’s either unrestricted — allowing the person to carry a gun anywhere not otherwise prohibited by law — or a restricted, allowing the person to carry a gun in certain circumstances. That could include carrying a gun for hunting or target shooting, when traveling for work or when in backcountry areas.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and two private citizens challenging the law have told the Supreme Court that it “makes it effectively impossible for an ordinary, law-abiding citizen to obtain a license to carry a handgun for self-defense.”

Lawyers for the group say the text of the Second Amendment along with history and tradition support their argument that there’s a right to carry a gun outside the home.

The group also says that New York’s law has discriminatory origins, that it was originally intended to give officials wide latitude to keep guns out of the hands of newly arrived immigrants from Europe, particularly Italians.

New York, for its part, says its law wasn’t enacted with anti-immigrant intent and that the Second Amendment allows states to restrict the carrying of guns in public. It too points to history, tradition and the text of the Second Amendment. The state says its restrictions promote public safety, pointing to research that says that places that restrict the public carry of guns have lower rates of gun-related homicides and other violent crimes.

New York says its law isn’t a flat ban on carrying guns but a more moderate restriction. The state doesn’t tally how many people have been issued unrestricted licenses or the overall rate at which they are granted because applications are processed at the county level. But the state says a preliminary analysis suggests that in a recent two-year stretch more than 54,000 people were issued restricted or unrestricted licenses, with 37,000 of those unrestricted licenses. At least 93% of applicants got a license, with 65% of applicants getting an unrestricted license, the state says.

Gun rights advocates hope that the court with a 6-3 conservative majority will side with them and say New York’s law is too restrictive.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association president Tom King said in an interview that part of the problem with New York’s law is that the chances a person will get an unrestricted permit depend on whether they’re in a rural or more urban area of the state. KIng said he thinks the case could be a “gamechanger.”

Both gun rights and gun control advocates, however, say it’s unclear how broadly the court might be willing to rule and that they will be closely watching arguments for clues, particularly from the court’s three newest members.

The three appointees of former President Donald Trump — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — are conservatives but were not on the court when the justices last issued major gun rights rulings. That means less is known about their views. The court’s three liberal justices are widely expected to side with New York.

Depending on what the justices ultimately say, other states’ laws could also be impacted. The Biden administration, which is urging the justices to uphold New York’s law, says California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island all have similar laws.

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